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‘Hobbit’ improves as it goes along

12/13/2012 - West Side Leader
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By Craig Marks

Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins) and Ian McKellen (Gandalf) star in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
What is wrong with this picture?

Thoughts along those lines crept in while watching “The Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey,” director Peter Jackson’s latest adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic tales of Middle-earth. It’s not the story that’s the big problem, though the adventure takes a long, long time to get going.

Most bothersome is the movie’s frame rate, which, in the theater where I screened the 3D film, was 48 frames per second rather than the usual 24. (Not all theaters will be equipped for the faster rate.) This results in sharper images (good) and an experience that feels off kilter (not so good). Having gone to movies since toddler age, we take it for granted that what we see at the cinema will be, well, cinematic. But watching “The Hobbit,” with images crisp as a Viewmaster reel, feels more like watching a live play or a high definition videotaped BBC production. Even the music doesn’t mesh — rather than being part of a cohesive whole, it feels tacked on.

I eventually adjusted to and forgot about the different frame rate, but it took nearly two hours into the movie. Fortunately, there was still about an hour to go, and the best stuff was yet to come.

“The Hobbit” tells the backstory of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a hobbit (diminutive, large footed) whose quiet life in the shire is interrupted by a visit from the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen). Baggins knows Gandalf as the guy who, on special occasions, sets off fireworks, which must be a better downtime gig for wizards than, say, working children’s parties.

Gandalf is there to recruit Baggins for a quest, which involves a band of warrior dwarves led by Thorin (Richard Armitage) who wants to reclaim their kingdom. The dwarves take over Baggins’ house, eating, singing and breaking household items, much to the chagrin of Baggins. (Freeman’s role in this part of the movie is to supply reaction shots of varying degree of befuddlement.) The dwarves overstay their welcome at the house, for both Baggins and us moviegoers.

But eventually the quest begins, with Baggins having to prove his worth to the gang as they come across trolls (a Middle-earth version of the Three Stooges), rock monsters and a mushroom-enjoying wizard who commands bunnies. None of it is remarkably exciting or remarkably tedious. In retrospect, it’s all just marking time before the main event, Baggins vs. Gollum.

When Baggins meets the creepy, pathetic Gollum (Andy Serkis, using motion capture technology), suddenly the number of frames per second doesn’t matter. We care more about the number of personalities stuffed inside of that bizarre creature, who engages Baggins in high-stakes mind games. It’s a mesmerizing battle between them, and the movie’s momentum continues after it, as wars rage and scores are settled up to the film’s not-exactly-the-conclusion conclusion. More “Hobbit” movies are to follow, with hopefully a frame rate we can all embrace.

The movie, which opens Dec.14, is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images.

HHH (out of four)


Craig Marks is a cartoonist and editorial, sports and entertainment writer for the West Side Leader.

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